Challenges on all fronts: The many dimensions of Myanmar’s multiple transitions

Yangoon (Myanmar) – Will democracy in Myanmar have to live with military prerogatives, tutelary power and civilian-military power-sharing in the times to come?

One-and-a-half years since Myanmar elected its first democratic civilian government after decades of military rule, the authorities held a forum in August 2017 to review successes and obstacles on the path to democracy, a market economy and open society.

The Myanmar Democratic Transition Forum was held in the administrative capital Nay Pyi Daw, and co-organized by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES). It was headlined by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Union Minister of Information Pe Myint.

On the occasion of the event, we spoke with Aurel Croissant, an expert on democratization and civil-military relations at the University of Heidelberg, as well as with H.E. U Nyunt Maung Shein, chairman of the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, and a close FES partner.


Professor Croissant, the Myanmar Democratic Transition Forum was the first event of its kind. Was it a helpful discussion of Myanmar’s progress? What can we realistically expect from such a format?

Aurel Croissant: Such events are an opportunity for supporters of democratization and good governance to bring together various stakeholders—national and international, civil society, government, opposition politicians, bureaucrats and the military. The aim in my view is not to develop concrete roadmaps, policy advisories or action programs. It is rather more modest, but no less important: to facilitate a dialogue between different political and social forces. In a context such as Myanmar, such an event fills a gap. What was exceptional about this event is the diversity of participants, the openness of the discussions and the extent of coverage by national and international media. If the goal is to facilitate a constructive dialogue about further political, economic and social transformation in Myanmar, which can indirectly contribute to the reform process in this country, this event was an impressive success.


In one of your comments you mentioned that Myanmar might be the most complicated transition case ever. Could you elaborate why?

AC: Myanmar is the most complicated and challenging case of transition from military government to a democratic political system because of two overarching reasons. The first one is the multi-dimensional nature of the challenges, which can be broken down into four dimensions:

  1. The political transformation from a military government to a democratic system
  2. The economic transformation from a war economy to a peace economy
  3. The societal transition from armed conflict to a post-conflict society
  4. The transformation of a “weak state” into a reasonably functional and usable state (bureaucracy); the national identity transformation from an ethnically exclusive conception of the nation and the state to a multi-ethnic, inclusive understanding Myanmar’s nation-state.

Most transitions from military rule to democracy, for example in Latin America, Sub-Sahara Africa or East and South-East Asia, include only one or two of these four dimensions, most usually the political and/or the conflict dimension.

Obviously, dealing with these four transformations simultaneously is more of a challenge.

To give one example, the transformation from military rule to democracy requires a reconfiguration of civil-military relations amid the reform of defence and the military. But those civil-military relations are also impacted at the same time by the economic reforms from a war to a peace economy, because the military is the most important economic player in Myanmar. And administrative reforms such as decentralization have further huge implications for the military, as the constitution and 50 years of military rule have given the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, control of the civil service at national, regional and local levels.

The second over-arching reason for the exceptional challenges facing Myanmar’s transition is the extremely deep entrenchment of the military in the political and economic system. This has been expressed in the strong legacy of military rule, extending to the military control over the transition period 2010-2015, as well as in the ongoing ethnic conflicts in some areas, and the lack of strong civilian institutions.

Most countries that have transitioned from military to civilian governments since the mid-1970s have seen democratically elected civilians initially confronted with at least some areas where the military retained authority and prerogatives. Examples of these include:

  • Military-dominated national security councils (Brazil, Turkey)
  • Reserved seats for military representatives in parliament (Indonesia)
  • Military budgetary independence from the government (Chile, Pakistan)
  • Military autonomy over internal affairs (R. Korea, Pakistan, Thailand, all Latin American examples)
  • Military control over defence and/or internal security policy (i.e. most of Central and South America, Pakistan, Turkey and Thailand).

Some cases fit more than one of the examples listed above. However, Myanmar is exceptional, with its military enjoying all five forms of reserved domains and institutional prerogatives. To me it seems plausible to assume that democracy in Myanmar will most probably have to live with military prerogatives, tutelary power and civilian-military power-sharing for quite some time to come.



In your talk, you presented the idea that we should conceive this period of Myanmar’s history as two subsequent transitions and not just one. Why is this concept more helpful?

AC: When analysing transitions from authoritarian rule to a political democracy or, more precisely, processes of democratizations, it is important to keep in mind that such processes involve actually two transitions.

The first transition, if successful, is one from autocratic governance to the installation of a democratic government. Once a transition from authoritarian rule in a given country has reached this point, a second transition can begin. This second one is from democratic government toward the effective functioning of a democratic regime or, in other words, to the consolidation of democracy.

Myanmar has accomplished the first transition from military government to a democratic government (in late 2015 and early 2016). But although a democratically elected, legitimate government governs the country, Myanmar is not a democracy. Most of the reserved domains and political prerogatives of the military remain untouched and intact, a legacy of the first 2010-2015 transition. The modalities of that transformation may in fact have complicated or even threatened the success of the second transition.


Turning to H.E. U Nyunt Maung Shein, what are your thoughts on the transition forum and if it was necessary?

U Nyunt Maung Shein: Already six years have passed since our transition started when U Thein Sein’s Government came into power in 2011. So, I think it was necessary and timely to take stock of where we stand on our path towards democracy.


What do you think of the pace of development of Myanmar’s democratic transition?

U Nyunt Maung Shein: Minister Pe Myint concluded by saying we are halfway along the road to transition. I have some doubts, I cannot agree, there are so many challenges to overcome after 50 years of isolation under successive governments. I am not sure about percentages, whether we are 30 per cent, halfway, or 80 per cent there, but we have made some progress, important progress. However, we have many things yet to fulfil on our journey towards a federal democratic state.


What important steps do you think Myanmar needs on the road to a full democratic state?

U Nyunt Maung Shein: First of all, governance, good governance. Talking is easy, but when it comes to implementation, it is quite difficult because bureaucracy still has the same mindset; it is difficult to change mindsets in a short time. Also, there is the legacy that any new government inherits, be it regarding rule of law, education or poverty eradication. In all these areas there are so many difficulties that we have to overcome, and quickly. 

Regarding our economy, the GDP is quite okay, it is one of the fastest-growing in Asia. But the country is still poor, as you know, with 26 per cent living under the poverty line according to U Thein Sein’s government. We were unable to meet our poverty reduction Millennium Development Goal in time for 2015.

The government needs to deliver more to the poor and vulnerable in society, rule of law is missing and corruption is persistent.

The peace process is also dragging on, and now we have more problems on the western side of the border. There, the international media is painting a story that is favouring the other side even though there are internally displaced Rakhine and various ethnic groups, which are not covered. The media is highlighting those leaving to Bangladesh. The issue in Rakhine state is very complex and sensitive. Without knowing the background history and culture it is very difficult for the outside world to present a simplistic view of the actual situation which Myanmar faces.



Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung established its office in Myanmar in 2014. For more information about the work of FES in the country, contact Alexey Yusupov, FES representative in Myanmar.

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